Sleep and Poetry: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in Sleep and Poetry 

The language and tone of Sleep and Poetry are unusually varied.
When addressing ‘Poesy’ in line 47, for instance, the tone has a religious intensity. Keats aspires to be ‘a glorious denizen / Of thy wide heaven’. The ecstatic language continues with phrases such as ‘glowing splendour’, ‘ardent prayer’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘a death of luxury’, ‘my young spirit’. ‘fresh sacrifice’ etc. This moves into a sense of freedom and light as he desires to capture in verse the fleeting beauties of daily life such as:
The light uplifting of a maiden's veil;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.     
In complete contrast, Keats’ attack on the Augustans has an acerbic tone and he uses language which is satirical and dismissive. He criticises their ‘musty laws’, as if they are old, unwanted and devoid of fresh air. He is openly abusive in calling the whole Augustan movement ‘a school / Of dolts’ and reducing their art to mere drudgery by the use of the language of manufacture: ‘smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit’, the words robbing the act of artistic creation of any spontaneity or inspiration and making the poets seem like ‘a thousand handicraftsmen’.
Some readers have criticised the language and tone of the poem’s ending in which Keats paints an ideal picture of the friendship and inspiration he received from Leigh Hunt. Keats’ enthusiasm strikes some as naïve and immature, the tone being perhaps too soft and gentle. Keats collects together in a short space words of admiration and appreciation like: ‘full-hearted’, ‘friendly’, ‘honour’, ‘brotherhood’, ‘friendliness’, ‘mutual good’, ‘hearty’, ‘pleasant’, ‘precious’, ‘snug’, ‘lovely’, ‘fluttering’, ‘soft’, ‘luxuriant’ etc.
Andrew Motion has said of this passage in Keats (1997): ‘Many people have seen this short scene as a diminution, and there are certainly moments in the closing lines which seem merely pretty, weaving ‘soft’ fingers and ‘luxuriant’ curls into a soppy picture of amity.’

Investigating language and tone in Sleep and Poetry

  • Find four examples of variations in language and tone to be found in Sleep and Poetry.
    • Explore how each contributes to the overall meaning and effect of the poem.
  • How does Keats inject a religious intensity to the language with which he addresses ‘Poesy’?
  • How do you respond to the language Keats uses to attack the Augustans? 
    • What does his language suggest about the sort of poetry they wrote? 
    • How does Keats convey what poetry should really be like?
  • Do you find the final section of the poem (about Keats’ friendship with Leigh Hunt) touching or ‘immature and naïve’?
    • Explain your reasons by examining closely the language Keats uses.

Structure and versification in Sleep and Poetry

The poem is written in heroic couplets – rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines – which is ironic given that Keats attacks the Augustan approach to poetry which employed the same verse form!
The poem demonstrates the movements of a young man’s mind as he explores the direction his work is going to take. Keats uses pastoral poetic imagery to demonstrate the superiority of poetry over sleep (as Shakespeare modelled in his Sonnet 130: ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) and then delineates the kind of poetry he considers so superior. Thus he progresses from the world of the pastoral, with its celebration of natural beauty, to the much weightier world of epic. After outlining this career progression Keats then defines what poetry should be by attacking what he saw as its abuses at the hands of the Augustans.
The poem comes back to the ‘poetry of daily life’ which Keats witnessed amongst his friends and the environments they created. Keats is determined to be part of the revival of poetry’s energy and purpose (a typical aspiration of the Romantic poets), standing up for the artistic ideas he believes in. 
As suggested by the poem’s title, the poem also contains a series of contrasts: 
  • the private world of Keats and his friends versus the world at large 
  • thought versus sensation
  • the dusty rules of the Augustans versus Keats’ belief in poetry that is ‘natural’ and spontaneous
  • instinct versus ‘knowledge’
  • immersion in the ideas of the age, versus the cultivation of the artistic imagination.

Investigating structure and versification in Sleep and Poetry

  • Why do you think Keats chose to begin and end the poem in the way he does?
  • What is the effect of the entire poem being written in heroic couplets?
  • Find examples of the contrasts that are part of the poem’s structure.
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